Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Smattering of Underwhelming Breezy Reads

Let me start out by saying here and now that I do not hate contemporary fiction by any means. In fact, most times I pick up these books with the highest hopes only to be let down by half-hearted attempts by authors trying to write that deep, edgy, "ethereal" novel that they believe begs for a screenplay. Sadly, they often get said screenplay. Here are three breezy, quick read novels, perfect for that mindless day at the beach or the improptu weekend getaway, but unfortunately lacking a good deal of  substance (at least for me). I'm not saying there's NO entertainment value whatsoever here, but I doubt these stories will be the kind that will linger in the memory days after finishing them.

First up is the much lauded Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. This is basically the story of a veterinary medicine student, Jacob, who is unexpectedly orphaned just a couple days before he is set to graduate. He walks out on his Ivy League education the day of his final exam and spontaneously jumps onto a train that belongs to a traveling circus, later joining the staff of this circus. He ends up falling for Marlena, horse (and later elephant) performer and the wife of the animal menagerie supervisor, August.

A number of people have recommended this book to me since it was first released, and I always seemed to have another book I was in the middle of. When I got word that the movie version was soon to be released, I figured it was time to see what all the crowing was about and went online to find a reasonably priced secondhand copy. I am a stickler for reading a book before its plot is potentially spoiled and hacked up for the big screen. Little did I know that I would have to compete with die-hard Twilight fans to snatch up these copies, maybe in the hopes of ol' Edward signing one? The online prices seemed to be hiked up everywhere! Wish they would realize he won't be Edward in this movie. Anyhoo, finally found a copy and was excited when it arrived as old school circus days IS one of my favorite subjects for a novel! Wow, was this one a snoozer for me! I will give Gruen props for research because I could definitely picture the circus environment and having been a former CNA, I will say that her portrayal of nursing homes and the patients there was pretty dead on. Aside from that, I felt myself becoming so indifferent to the rushed and formulaic love story between Jacob and Marlena. August was just flat out insane! Why everyone just brushed off his bipolar/rage issues as a personality quirk is beyond me. I did like some of the side characters, such as Kink the dwarf-sized clown and even Rosie the elephant. For a character that didn't have any dialogue, I often found myself more entertained by her antics than any of the shenanigans going on with the two-legged characters!

So for this one, I have to say - if you are craving a great story about the circus, I recommend Gary Jenning's Spangle series (you can find a link to these books at the bottom of this blog at my BookJetty page). It actually goes back even further in history, when circuses traveled by horse drawn wagons! The story covers three novels and gives the reader the chance to really get to know everyone in the troupe. There are brief moments of graphic sexual imagery here and there (I think this may have been done to give one a sense of the exotic life of gypsy traveling bands.. not sure though) but once you get past that, there is a TON of deeply researched history, particularly when the troupe travels all over Europe performing for famous nobility.

And for Twilight fans ( I don't judge - read what makes you happy!) I include below a shot of Patterson and Reese Witherspoon (casted to play Jacob and Marlena) in a promo shot as well as the movie trailer. I don't understand the casting for Marlena's husband, August. August, though crazy, is still suppose to be good-looking and charismatic (a large part of why Marlena has a hard time leaving him), but the guy they cast looks like he's getting ready to qualify for AARP! Oh well... fingers crossed the film dazzles :)

Okay, your turn, James Patterson! Now normally, the one type of book that I've found is nearly impossible for me to get excited about is the crime/mystery genre... and of course, James Patterson is famous for his Alex Cross detective novels. Just a few days ago, I was speaking with my mom on the phone and she was raving about these novels, but then again that's one of her favorite genres. Weird how the person who inspired me most in my love of books can have such different tastes! That's not to say I won't ever ready a detective novel though - I have actually been pretty impressed with the novels of Max Allan Collins, particularly his Nathan Heller detective series in which Heller solves cases involving Old Hollywood celebrities and historical notables. But I digress... back to Patterson....

So shortly after that conversation with my mom, I was doing what I consider "book window shopping" on and came across these two books : Sam's Letters to Jennifer and Sundays at Tiffanys. Not crime/mystery novels at all but Patterson's foray into .. well, not sure what to call the genre exactly... contemporary women's fiction? Sam's Letters is the story of an elderly woman, Sam, who writes the truth behind her life story in letters to her granddaughter Jennifer as a story she can come back to over the years. Sam then finds herself hospital-bound after suffering a stroke. As Sam spends the next few weeks recovering in the hospital, Jennifer reads the letters a couple at a time and discovers she hardly knows Sam at all, as Sam opens with the shocker "I never loved your grandfather". (A man she was married to for decades). The secrets keep pouring out from there.

Sundays At Tiffany's tells the hard-to-fathom story of a little girl who is pretty much ignored by her hotshot Broadway producer mother, so she develops a friendship with her imaginary friend, Michael, (a grown man BTW). Years later, this girl, all grown up now, runs into Michael again,though Michael claims that's against some sort of  Imaginary Friend Codes of Conduct. Apparently, imaginary friends are given a time span of 4-6 yrs to help a child get happy and get over their issues and then the I.F. is suppose to say adios and do some sort of Men In Black flashbulb thing where the child never remembers them again. Weird, seeing as how I know a number of adults  today (including myself)  that can admit to having had an imaginary friend at some point in their childhood and can remember details about them quite well. Putting all that aside, somehow the reader is suppose to understand an adult relationship developing here though it is unclear who can see Michael, who can't, is he an angel or what?, and so on....

The stories definitely aren't geared toward male readers. I don't have much chick lit laying around my house - a few here and there - but with mom's high praise of Patterson on my mind  the fact that the stories themselves did have some appeal for me, AND the bonus that I could get them for nearly nothing on Amazon, I decided to give it a whirl. Well, Patterson, I gave you TWO tries and I feel gypped! The first novel, Sam's Letters, pulled a literal eyeroll out of me - and I am not using "literally" in the exaggerated sense here - I actually looked up at my ceiling, rolled my eyes and damn near chucked the book - that virtually never happens! But both novels are short so I decided to see it through. Little reward did I see! With Sundays At Tiffany's, after finishing it, I felt so frustrated, telling my boyfriend that it was essentially the 90s movie Drop Dead Fred, only not nearly as cute or witty, with a few extra, but not much more interesting, plot points thrown in!

Both books were packed with overly saccharine sentiment, cliches galore ("I never expected to find someone like you") and the go-to made-for-tv movie moment "Im dying". Really? You went that route?? This is where I had the eyeroll by the way. I was half expecting to turn the page and see "You complete me".  I know what real, heartfelt love feels like, and never once have I felt the need to lay it on that thick in the moment! Seeing as how Patterson's writing felt like it was developed as if there was a Nicholas Spark's Writing For Dummies handbook to pull pointers from, I'm not sure that I could ever seriously consider his Alex Cross novels. Granted, the genres are different, which means the writing style could and probably should vary so I'm not saying never, but it will definitely be a good long while before I approach any of his stuff again.